What Are The Iowa Caucuses And Why Is It So Important?

A useful guide to the Iowa Caucuses.

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What is the Iowa Caucus?

The Iowa Caucus system begins with a group of 1,679 precinct caucuses that start the four-part presidential and midterm electoral process for both Democratic and Republican parties in Iowa. Precinct caucuses are party member meetings held in schools, libraries, churches and similar venues.

Can I participate?

Anyone who is an Iowa resident and of voting age can attend. Those not yet registered to vote, are able to complete registration before going in. If a potential participant’s registration is for a different party, party registration can be switched at the door. Meeting leaders are chosen, sometimes presidential candidates or candidate representatives briefly speak, the caucus participants discuss the candidates, and vote—Republicans on paper, Democrats with their feet. By the close of the caucus, delegates have been selected to go on to each party’s county, district and state conventions.

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Why is the Iowa Caucus important?

The Iowa Caucus isn’t first because of its importance, they say; it’s important because it’s first. It became the first electoral event in the nation beginning in 1972, simply by virtue of the length of the electoral process Iowa follows. New Hampshire still holds the first primary. But things start happening in Iowa first.

Because the Iowa State Fair – held approximately six months before the Iowa Caucus starts – concentrates Iowans in a way nothing else likely could, it’s the perfect venue for candidates to meet Iowans face-to-face. In fact, it would be difficult to find a place where it is so easy to have a personal encounter with a presidential candidate. The resulting concentration of candidates draws a proportionate concentration of media. That allows lesser-known candidates to be seen across the country, and everyone gets a chance to give a short speech to fairgoers on the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox.

The Iowa Caucus system itself can push a dark horse into the spotlight, as it propelled Jimmy Carter down the path to the presidency in 1976 and Obama in 2008. In between the State Fair and the caucuses, candidates spend a lot of time and money running ads, making appearances, or holding rallies across Iowa, and it is the first real test of their candidacy. They say that the Iowa Caucus won’t necessarily pick the winner, but it can and will pick the losers. No candidate who has finished in anything lower than fourth place has become the national party’s nominee (and only two fourth-placers have managed that – Democrat Bill Clinton, 1992, and Republican John McCain, 2008). Particularly in the Democratic caucuses, where a candidate must have the support of at least 15% of participants to be “viable,” candidates who make a bad showing during the Iowa Caucus process may well drop out. On the flip side, a good showing during this first test of the electorate can give a candidate some much-needed momentum.

How Do the Iowa Caucuses Work?

Both the Democratic and Republican party caucuses begin similarly. Meeting leaders are selected. There may be speeches by candidates or their representatives. The caucus participants then discuss the candidates.

How the Republican Iowa Caucuses Work

At Republican caucuses, the participants write their choices down on a piece of paper, and the votes are tallied and reported to the state parties. Then delegates to the Republican County Conventions are chosen.

The Republican Party County Conventions meet in March to choose delegates for the Republican Party District Conventions, and the State Republican Party Convention. The Republican Party District Conventions are held in April, and each of Iowa’s four congressional districts is assigned three Republican National Convention delegates, proportionately allocated among candidates based on statewide precinct results.

In May, the Republican State Convention is held and 25 additional National Convention delegates are chosen and apportioned in accordance with the precinct caucus results. Three Republican party leaders are also National Convention delegates. The National Convention delegates apportioned to candidates in accordance with caucus results are bound to that candidate for the first ballot – unless only one candidate is listed for nomination.

How the Democratic Iowa Caucuses Work

At Democratic caucuses, each participant stands with a group of similarly minded supporters, including a group of “uncommitted.” If any candidate has the support of less than 15% of the caucus participants, that candidate is not “viable.” Those supporters then either choose another candidate to support, or try to pick up supporters for their favored candidate. The number of delegates chosen is based on the level of participation in the precinct caucus for the last two elections. That number is allocated among candidates according to their share of participants’ support.

The chosen and pledged delegates go to the Democratic County Conventions in March, where between five and eight of them are allocated to each of Iowa’s four congressional districts. In April, at the Democratic Party District Conventions, delegates to the Democratic National Convention are chosen, allocated to candidates in proportion to precinct caucus results. At the Democratic State Convention, nine pledged at-large delegates and five party leader and elected official (PLEO) delegates are chosen for the National Convention, apportioned in accordance with precinct caucus results. An additional eight unpledged PLEO delegates, or superdelegates, also attend the National Convention.

This year the Democrats are offering a new twist. Groups who are unable to attend a caucus for reasons such as night shift work can apply to hold a satellite caucus where they work.

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When Is the 2020 Iowa Caucus?

The Iowa Caucuses for both the Democratic and Republican parties for 2020 are on Monday, February 3. They typically start at 7:00 p.m., Central time.

History of the Iowa Caucus and Past Winners

The Iowa Caucus system is as old as Iowa. In the 1800s, caucuses were virtually unregulated and easily manipulated. In 1916, Iowa experimented by holding a presidential primary, but not many people turned out to vote, and none of the major candidates had made the effort to get onto the state ballot. Iowa returned to the caucus system, but turnout remained low, and the state parties themselves had most of the influence over delegates and supported nominees.

Then the 1968 Democratic National Convention happened. Late in 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy announced a bid against President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination. Senator Robert F. Kennedy joined the competition. At the end of March 1968, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. In April, Vice President Hubert Humphrey announced that he would run too. After Kennedy was assassinated in June, his delegates were split between McCarthy and Senator George McGovern. By the time of the August Democratic National Convention, held at the Chicago International Amphitheatre, there were fault-lines throughout the party.

There were also thousands of anti-Vietnam protesters and countercultural disrupters outside the International Amphitheatre, which Chicago Mayor Richard Daley responded to with a marked absence of restraint. He mobilized all 12,000 police, 6,000 National Guard, 1,000 intelligence agents from the FBI, CIA, Army and Navy, and supplied plenty of billy clubs and abundant tear gas. What occurred was called a “police riot.” Inside the Amphitheatre, Democratic factions were engaging in confrontations on the convention floor almost as heated as events in the streets. When the “peace” plank of the proposed party platform was defeated, the convention spun into chaos. Ultimately, Humphrey won the nomination, but the Democratic Party was in tatters.

The Party decided it was time to reduce back-room selection of delegates and nominees, and conduct an electoral process that reflected voter preference. Because the Iowa caucus was first on the 1972 calendar, it was the first place candidates could begin to pick up delegates. The traditional presidential candidacy race across Iowa was on.

Past winners of the Iowa Caucuses:

  • 1972: “Uncommitted” (D), Richard Nixon (R)
  • 1976: “Uncommitted” (D), Gerald Ford (R)
  • 1980: Jimmy Carter (D), George H.W. Bush (R)
  • 1984: Walter Mondale (D), Ronald Reagan (R)
  • 1988: Dick Gephardt (D), Bob Dole (R)
  • 1992: Tom Harkin (D), George H.W. Bush (R)
  • 1996: Bill Clinton (D), Bob Dole (R)
  • 2000: Al Gore (D), George W. Bush (R)
  • 2004: John Kerry (D), George W Bush (R)
  • 2008: Barack Obama (D), (Mike Huckabee) (R)
  • 2012: Barack Obama (D), Rick Santorum (R)
  • 2016: Hillary Clinton (D), Ted Cruz (R)

The Rantt Rundown

For residents of states where voting in a primary means waiting in line for a few minutes to go in and push a button, the Iowa Caucus system is an odd thing indeed. Its detractors rightly point out that the demographics of Iowa are hardly representative of the nation, and perhaps the Caucus should not be given the importance it receives. But the Iowa Caucus knows what it is, and makes no claim to have the ability to pick party nominees. Unofficially beginning with the Iowa State Fair, the Iowa Caucus provides a unique and important opportunity for relatively unknown candidates to get national coverage. It worked for Jimmy Carter, who until then had been virtually unknown outside of Georgia, and for the freshman senator from Illinois. In the current political climate, there’s something to be said about starting out an election by chatting with neighbors.

Elections // Elections / Iowa Caucus